In response to recent racist incidents on campus, academic departments at the University of Massachusetts presented a teach-in in the Student Union’s Cape Cod Lounge on Tuesday night.
The teach-in, which was organized by the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, was attended by more than 200 people and lasted for over two hours. Titled “The Problem of the Color Line,” a reference from W.E.B. Du Bois’ book “The Souls of Black Folk,” the event was a discussion between students and faculty at UMass about racism on campus and in the U.S.
At the beginning of the event, University Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy made a brief remark on the teach-in’s place in both the discussion of the recent racist incidents on campus and the broader context of racism in America.
“When bad things happen, how the community copes really is an indication of how strong the community is,” Subbaswamy said. “So, I compliment all of you for gathering here for this teach-in, because honestly, this is the best defense against those who want to see a community divided and fall apart.”
Earlier last month, the UMass Police Department received an anonymous tip of an “agitated Black male” walking into the Whitmore Administration Building, but the man was a University employee walking to work. Later in September, the written message “Hang Melville n******” was found written in the bathroom of Melville Hall in Southwest Residential Area.
The teach-in was moderated by Stephanie Shonekan, the chair of the department of Afro-American Studies, and Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an associate professor of anthropology at the University.
“Our goals here are to leave here more informed about the history of race and the ramifications of racism, to be inspired to take classes in Afro-Am or maybe become a minor or a major…to be inspired to learn more about Du Bois and his ideas of social justice and racial equality,” Shonekan said.
The teach-in was divided into two panels of five. The first focused on the history of racism while the second focused on the perspective that art and literature can give on the topic of race in America. Each panelist had five minutes to speak about how their interests and research could shed light on the larger intellectual discussion of race.
“We did not get here yesterday,” said Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the department of Afro-American studies. “It’s only through persistent, continuous struggle on all kind of levels…whether you say you’re an ally or a traitor or whatever, what we all have to be is all in on this, and do what we can to make a difference, to challenge it when we see it, to try to bring ways that can bring us together.”
Robert Williams, a Ph.D candidate in the Afro-American studies department, discussed how the power dynamics of the University can impact outcomes when it comes to addressing problems on campus. Hierarchies like the administration at UMass must be pressured to change, he said.
“We exist in a hierarchy here at UMass,” Williams said. “Hierarchies only change when they have to. They lurch from existential crisis to existential crisis, and we are in the middle of a small one right now. And in these existential crises, they flap their arms, they run around and they gather in a group. They say, ‘Okay, we’re better than this,’ and they hang up signs – path of least resistance. Hierarchies move like electricity; they go down paths of least resistance.”
“You have to give them a path. We have several extraordinary problems on this campus,” Williams added.
After the first panel finished making opening remarks, members from the panel took questions from the audience. The panel was asked about the lack of accountability or punishment when it comes to perpetrators of racism on campus.
“I think we have to question the punishment framework,” said Shabazz. “The punishment idea that is so ingrained in American society is something we have to challenge. I like the word going around on campus with some students about the restorative justice initiative.”
Restorative justice, he explained, was a process that over time could mediate between a victim and a perpetrator of a crime, instead of traditional forms of punishment.
The next panel discussed issues regarding police on campus, the disproportionate incarceration of Black people and the concept of afro-pessimism. A mix of students and professors from across disciplines, some on the panel, shared poems and discussed how literature and art can help empower socially marginalized communities.
“We have to develop change, recruit faculty and students of color. We have to change the curriculum, we have to give more power to Black studies and ethnic studies in general, we need to convert these kinds of forums into an evolving process on all levels of university life,” said Agustin Lao-Montes, an associate professor of sociology and Afro-American studies.
After the event, Graduate Employee Organization co-chair and graduate student studying labor studies Prachi Goyal said that she thought the event needed to be held in the wake of recent incidents.
“It’s really important that we are here supporting our fellow students, but also our local [union] represents RAs so if any RAs do stand-up about what happened or so say anything, we have the legal resources to support them,” Goyal said.
Michael Connors can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mikepconnors.